Hello, MB! This is the 4th (or 5th, but who’s counting) post in a series of posts rebutting last week’s Dear Author series on fanfiction. And it’s the third of a set of posts responding to one post in particular: “Fanfiction: A Tale of Fandom and Morality.” TODAY IS THE VERY SPECIAL FAIRY EDITION OF THIS POST.
In the previous two posts, I talked about the ways in which trying to police how influence works itself out in fiction is nearly impossible, and ultimately bad for the works on either side of the equation. I also talked about how it’d be a bit hypocritical for us to do that in the case of 50 Shades of Grey, our current controversial work of fanfic-turned-pro, given that one of the things publishers want writers to do is to appeal to the audience who shelled out for Twilight.
In the original post, author Has asserts, “Taking an entire fanfiction story and turning that into a published book is:”
- ethically wrong
- a cynical ploy to market books… an easy way to cash in because there’s already a built-in fanbase that is able to market the book via word of mouth
- [an indication] that the author does not believe what they wrote is strong enough to stand on its own merits but decided to publish it so they could profit by exploiting their fanbase
- might start off an ever-crazier circle of fanfiction based on fanfiction.
- very detrimental to fandom and fanfiction
I’ve already pointed out, in the previous posts, how the “marketing ploy” argument is hypocritical to criticize a fan author for doing exactly what publishers want them to do in terms of appealing directly to a rich consumer base. As for the second bullet point: the whole weight of history is behind the act of spinning old works and characters into new versions and iterations. The idea that the fan author’s writing can’t stand alone/isn’t good enough to be publishable is one fanfiction authors have been saddled with for decades. I’ve already rebutted this argument very thoroughly, so I’ll just add: this argument, that fans surely couldn’t write an original plot, not only debases fanfiction, but it seems to target members of female fandom spaces. It also completely sidesteps the whole point that in most cases, the fanfiction that gets converted into original fiction winds up far removed from the source material. And in many cases already was to begin with.
Okay, now for bullet #4 (I’m skipping around, okay): might start off an ever-crazier circle of fanfiction based on fanfiction.
Hahaha. Okay, well, for one thing, people have been writing fanfiction based on fanfiction for fucking years. How is that bad? I’ve had several works of fanfiction written for my own works of fanfiction, and like every other member of fandom I know, I’ve never been anything but extremely flattered. Just like getting fanart or a podfic of your story, fanfic based on one of your own stories is seriously one of the best things ever that can be gifted to you in fandom. There are even remix challenges that invite authors to write fanfic of fanfic, all over fandom. This is not a serious criticism of the “danger” of published fanfiction, and no one who understands how remix culture works would ever offer it up as one, because the whole point of being in a remix culture is that we’re all gleaning, transforming, and passing on what’s come before.
Which brings me to fairies.
Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert has an amazing 2009 TED talk entitled “A New Way to Think About Creativity,” where she talks about trying to find new ways to “manage the inherent emotional risks associated with creativity.” ((transcript) I would never encourage you to read EPL but I would urge all of you to watch her talk because I think it’s completely brilliant, and her ideas, while they are offered in the context of taming genius, also are extremely relevant to the way we frame the argument about fanwork. Gilbert asks if we can “go back to some more ancient understanding of the relationship between humans and the creative mystery:”
[In Ancient Greece], people believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit… a “genius” was this sort of magical divine entity who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio—kind of like Dobby, the house elf. So, brilliant, there it is, that distance—that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. ….
And for me, the best contemporary example that I have of how to do that is the musician Tom Waits, who I got to interview several years ago on a magazine assignment. And we were talking about this, and you know, Tom, for most of his life he was pretty much the embodiment of the tormented contemporary modern artist, trying to control and manage and dominate these sorts of uncontrollable creative impulses that were totally internalized.
But then he got older, he got calmer, and one day he was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles he told me, and this is when it all changed for him. And he’s speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, you know, it’s gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it. He doesn’t have a piece of paper, he doesn’t have a pencil, he doesn’t have a tape recorder.
So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him like, ‘I’m going to lose this thing, and then I’m going to be haunted by this song forever. I’m not good enough, and I can’t do it.’ And instead of panicking, he just stopped. He just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel. He just looked up at the sky, and he said, ‘Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen.’
And his whole work process changed after that. Not the work, the work was still oftentimes as dark as ever. But the process, and the heavy anxiety around it was released when he took the genie, the genius out of him where it was causing nothing but trouble, and released it kind of back where it came from, and realized that this didn’t have to be this internalized, tormented thing. It could be this peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration kind of conversation between Tom and the strange, external thing that was not quite Tom. ….
This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life. But maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe, in the first place, that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you’re finished, with somebody else. And, you know, if we think about it this way it starts to change everything.”
I like this idea a lot. I like it because it makes ideas a community process of receiving, sharing, and passing on. I like this idea for its potential to revise the way we think about storytelling and narrative theory. I like it because it’s anti-capitalist! I like it because it reconfigures creativity with communal narratives at the center of a kind of group process in which we all give and receive ideas as they come to us. And I like it because it implies an equal balance of agency between us as creators and the fairy-like muses that gift us with stories and ideas.
What if we viewed creators as being strands along a larger, interconnected web of ideas? What if we could agree that original works and the works they inspire could co-exist alongside of one another—since we know they already do—and that maybe that’s okay? And what kinds of new business models could we derive from thinking about creativity this way? What if I write a book that I am willing to openly claim is based on an idea that I drew from your book, and instead of you sueing me, we work out a deal where “Inspired by (Your Book)” goes on my cover? What if, after a certain number of copies sold, both of our books are reprinted and we share the wealth?
What if taking inspiration from someone else’s works didn’t have to get conflated with “plagiarism” (which is when you explicitly copy something and don’t credit) but could instead be seen as a form of literary sampling? Dear Author actually has a post from 2010 arguing for compulsory licensing for ALL fanfiction (um, how about no); but what if a conversation about licensing and royalties could be had without thinking of these things as a way to proscribe the boundaries of fanfiction? What if they could be seen, instead, as potential ways to make it easier for attributed transformative work to be sold openly and linked back to its source inspiration, for the mutual benefit of all parties?
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the down-side of this new world of Free Love And Published Fanfic! But for now:
Sara K. saysMarch 29, 2012 at 7:36 am
I just want to let you know that, even though I am not a fan-fiction person, I agree with almost everything you say. I myself think that is hypocritical for people to get super-defensive about ‘their work’ considering that every creative person in the world took inspiration from other creative works, and everybody is re-working tropes from the pool. Dearie, it’s not just your work, it’s also the work of everybody who influenced you, and why don’t you return the favor and simply be flattered when people let themselves be influenced by you.
Aja Romano saysApril 3, 2012 at 11:55 pm
Thank you so much for this comment! It’s really gratifying to me to hear that this is making sense to people who may not be as totally immersed in all of the arguments about fanfic/fandom that I’m used to hearing. Yay! And thank you for sticking with this crazy column so far! :)
polytropic saysApril 4, 2012 at 1:44 am
“I like it because it makes ideas a community process of receiving, sharing, and passing on. I like this idea for its potential to revise the way we think about storytelling and narrative theory. I like it because it’s anti-capitalist! I like it because it reconfigures creativity with communal narratives at the center of a kind of group process in which we all give and receive ideas as they come to us. And I like it because it implies an equal balance of agency between us as creators and the fairy-like muses that gift us with stories and ideas.”
Aja, I did the stupidest hand-flailing motion of PURE JOY at this. Narrative so totally is a communally created process that speaks through the individual, and you just encapsulated that idea so clearly and excitingly AND THEN THERE WERE FAIRIES. Thank you so much for the link to the TED Talk, but more importantly thank you for your thoughts on it! You make my brain so happy.
scruloose saysApril 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm
I’d like to be the first to say “JESUS CHRIST IT’S COMPULSORY LICENSING GET IN THE CAR!!!”
’cause, you know, mandatory registration regimes for marginalized groups have, historically, tended to end well, right? No? Oh yeah, not so much.
Also I’m really enjoying this series. My involvement in fandom is… very peripheral, but I’ve been a hardcore fan of the internet since the early-to-mid nineteen-nineties, and I pay close attention to how copyright overreach (also called “intellectual property enforcement”, which has the one-two punch of an Orwellian ring AND use of the legally meaningless and gossly misleading term “Intellectual Property”) is eroding the free and open internet.
Lately I’ve been fascinated with the intersection among three very different copyright-related conflicts. First is the tension (or war) between fandom/remix culture and the pro-copyright lobby, which we could call “ownership culture”. Second is the entertainment-industry-funded SOPA/C-30 campaign for universal surveillance and censorship, aka Big Content’s war on free speech. Finally there’s the long-running and dirty war that the secretive, control-oriented proprietary software industry (led by Microsoft) is waging on the free-exchange-of-ideas culture of Free/Open Source Software. (FOSS has a lot more in common with fandom than with the sofware industry, especially in terms of culture). It’s not remix culture or fanfic that needs to be defending itself against claims of unethical behaviour here. The whole history of artistic creation _is_ remix culture, dating right back to telling, retelling, and re-interpreting stories around the fire—long before the invention of writing—and right up to using several sites’ open APIs to create an eyecatching and informative graphic out of the datasets in several databases owned by several companies and served from several (or at least a couple of) countries). The aberration here is the late-20th-Century notion that there is (and should be) this large and powerful “Copy right” that somehow confers the power to stop other people from re-telling and re-interpreting stories, or telling their own stories about characters they met in somebody else’s story, or any of the infinite variety of ways in which people will both be inspired by and produce creative works if they’re only free to create without fear of reprisals.
Ideas are not property, free flow of ideas is the natural order of things, and an attack on remix culture is an attack on the entire storytelling history of humanity.
The real ‘theft’ here is the Disneys, RIAAs, and MPAAs who have bought up and otherwise appropriated huge swathes of previously-public-commons cultural heritage and expanded the term and scope of copyright beyond all reason so that they can control access, create artificial scarcity, and make obscene amounts of money selling people’s own culture back to them (and in a watered down and badly diminished form, at that). Now they’ve discovered that the only way to shore up their obsolete middleman business model is to fatally poison the Internet, because the free and rapid exchange of ideas (and information of all kinds) on the Internet—especially the way fandom does it—does a much better job of satisfying people’s desire to connect and tell each other stories than the centralized gatekeeper model ever did, so it’s inexorably going to put the copyright cartels out of business if it isn’t killed—or at least chained down by a totalitarian surveillance and censorship regime that makes it no better than broadcast TV and leaves us old timers wondering what ever happened to the Internet we knew and loved. There’s a really strong argument to be made that the US-led Big Content industry is the gravest and most immediate threat to freedom of speech in the world right now. So tell me again, it was fanfic writers who at every turn face the a priori assumption that their culture and what it produces is ethically wrong…? Really?
Not that I have, y’know, feelings on the subject or anything. -_^
Sara K. saysApril 8, 2012 at 11:03 pm
Sounds a lot like my perspective. I was raised in FOSS culture myself, which is why I use Linux even though I’m not a tech geek. I’m really happy that I managed to get my current computer without any version of Windows installed on in – Linux is the only operating system it has ever run (aside from FreeDos, but who cares about FreeDos). The store even gave me a discount since they did not have have to pay the Microsoft licensing fee – SO TAKE THAT MICROSOFT, YOU DIDN’T GET A SINGLE NT OF MY MONEY.